Fantasia 2021 Review: BORN OF WOMAN Shorts Program Packs Punches, Perspectives
[Still from Lucia Forner Segarra's Dana.]
Every year, I look forward to seeing what the Fantasia programming team has curated for their many shorts programs, and every year since its inauguration, the Born of Woman shorts program has blown me away. This year's collection of women-directed short films is especially impressive, and is a benchmark in such showcases.
This year, Fantasia highlights works from women creators in Canada, the U.S., Sweden, Italy, and France, often taking big swings that pay off quite well. Common themes are trauma, sexual violence, murder, assault, and revenge. These are the things we live through --- or not --- as women.
First up is Lucid by Deanna Milligan, Canada. A little long at 17 minutes, but the film does need some time to build the set up. This retro film takes place in the '90s at art school, and having been there myself, I can attest that the pretentious attitudes on display here --- in both the professors and students --- are spot-on. Going to art school is its own specific kind of trauma; it's a microcosm of society, and you'd think you'd escape the horrible judgement of the outside world, but you'd be wrong. Anyway, our protagonist is belittled as she presents her work to her classes --- that is, until she dreams up a performance piece that will have everyone talking. I expected it to be more gruesome than whimsical, but it's a fun ending. Milligan uses aspect ratio changes to differentiate between the past ('90s) and the even more past ('80s childhood), as well as some cool camera roll moves, and effective sound effects. She also shot on film. As a result, Lucid is a well-directed time capsule of angst and experimentation.
Next is Inheritance from Annalise Lockhart (U.S.), who should be known to mass audiences in a few years' time, hopefully sooner than later. An African-American girl celebrates her birthday, and is handed the deed to her family's property. She also inherits the ability to see ghostly white people who give off waves of hostility, and her brother admits to having seen them since he turned the same age. He's also built some kind of electro-magnetic cloaking device from maple sap and trees, which allow the family peace to live their lives without ghostly interference and judgement. The plot device is a very simple but extremely effective metaphor for racism in this country, and this short should serve as a fantastic proof of concept for a feature version, which I'd love to see. Cinematographer Charlotte Hornsby is also to be commended for such beautiful images; together Lockhart and Hornsby have created something very special. I'm sure this isn't the last we'll see of either of them.
The third film in the program is She Whistles by Thirza Cuthand, an Indigenous Canadian filmmaker. In a form of catharsis, she explores a world in which has deemed Indigenous women as disposable targets. Using genre to investigate socio-political issues is akin to slipping on a well-worn jacket; it fits, it works. And anyone who tells you that horror (or sci-fi) isn't or shouldn't be political is either trolling you or wildly misinformed to the point of ignorance. I'll get off my soapbox now. She Whistles follows a young woman in a cab as she's attacked by the older, white male driver. Her own mother has gone missing, and the film serves as a backlash to colonialism in the sense that the filmmaker and the character have had enough --- and fight back. The tense performances sell the Native folklore, which is if you whistle at the Northern Lights, the spirits will come to take you away.
Victim No. 6 follows, from the very-talented Nancy Menagh (U.S.). At 22 minutes, most short films don't get programmed at festivals. However, this desaturated, '70s period piece is so well done that the time flies by with all the flourish of those long, butterfly collars on display. There's a slasher on the loose, and with so many women missing, nerves are frayed. Lead Heather Brittain O'Scanlon delivers a brickhouse-solid performance that anchors the piece, easily switching between motivations and moods --- she makes acting seem effortless, and I'd like to see her in more films. In concert with Menagh, this film flips power dynamics in ways that are more surprising and less cliche. This film could be a great proof of concept for a series or feature; I'd love to see more female villains like this.
Lucia Forner Segarra (Spain) brings Dana to us next, with a fantastic Thais Blume starring as the traumatized, titular character. She's assaulted on the street one night by a serial rapist, and uses a pen to stab him in the neck until he's dead --- unlike most horror film victims. That's the way you do it --- you don't drop any weapon and run, you stab until dead. I was thrilled to see this cliche subverted here. Of course, the character had to deal with shock and trauma after the event. But with assistance from a male friend who works in tech for the police, Dana tracks down a number of serial rapists, who often serve little time and go on to rape and/or murder more women. Her fighting back inspires a movement of vigilantism across the globe, from those who won't take it anymore. I can't say enough about Dana. Segarra treats the material seriously while infusing humor into certain moments, and that in itself takes a huge amount of talent and restraint. The film is empowering and wonderfully cathartic, with moments that made me cheer. MORE, please!
Next us is Alyssa Loh's (U.S.) Other Bodies, a tale of a young man and his infatuation with a girl at college. His voiceover is quiet and soothing as he tells his tale, and it's basically murderous ASMR. Loh directs the sound and images in the same sense, lulling viewers into a soft complacency before delivering a sucker punch of an ending. Intriguing, and unassuming, this film is probably the most mesmerizing murder tale I've ever seen and heard.
Sweden's Carolina Sandvik gives us the only stop-motion entry in the program with The Expected. A couple experience a miscarriage, and even though that's a traumatizing life event, it's also a mundane one because it happens so often. So how does one the imbue deep meaning of such an occurence without dialogue through stop-motion and time-lapse photography? Carefully. Through a combination of colors, lighting, excellent sound design, and camera angles, Sandvik has created a masterful short film full of dread, grief, and puppets evocative of grief and world-weariness. Incredible.
Rounding out the program is the Italian-French co-production, A New Perspective. Emanuela Ponzano directs the tale of a boy who sees persecution and genocide in the woods as carried out by the Nazis. Though the actors wear costumes fitting that time period, the film tells us that history will repeat itself if we're not careful. The film is a sobering reminder of how precarious things can be, how close fascism is to annihilating people again if we don't stop it. Heavy and important, this is the kind of art that inspires conversations.